Iran's Ambitions, Israel's Fears

More than 20,000 people signed the J Street petition that I posted here last week ("Oh, Malcolm!"), with the result that Sarah Palin was disinvited to the Iran event.

Meanwhile, here's the the "Viewpoint" piece that I wrote for the current issue of Jewish Currents (to which you can subscribe, between now and September 30, for only $15 — just send me an e-mail at lawrencebush@earthlink.net). I welcome thoughtful comment; it was not an easy piece to write. Iran's ambitions deeply disturb me — but preemptive war disturbs me even more.


The fact that Israeli Jews, across the political spectrum, seem to view a nuclear-armed Iran as both an likelihood and a mortal threat has given me great pause as I’ve waited, protest sign in hand, for the Bush Administration to launch a military strike against Iran. Unlike the U.S., with its “sole superpower” mentality, Israel has every reason not to get involved in a gratuitous war. So I take Israel’s warnings seriously. They force me to look into the abyss and assume that the Iranians are, indeed, seeking to obtain nuclear weapons — and are as hostile to Israel as their vile rhetoric suggests. Only by pondering such a pessimistic scenario can I clear my head of bias (against anything and everything Dick Cheney says, for instance) and take a credible stand on what is to be done.

Does such ‘realism’ mean that I’m ready to add my voice to the neoconservative war cry, which is getting louder and nastier now that the Bush Administration seems, at least temporarily, to be emphasizing diplomacy over military strikes in its approach to Iran?

Far from it. I am doubtful that Bush and Cheney have changed their minds about a preemptive strike; just as likely, they are simply laying the groundwork for calling military action a ‘last resort.’ Whatever the reality in Washington, however, I’m for negotiations, combined with economic pressure. Writing in the Jerusalem Post June 25th, Chuck Freilich, a former national security advisor in Israel, saw likely success in economic sanctions:

Iran imports 40 percent of its refined gasoline products. If the West banned these sales, its economy could be brought to its knees. Oil exports make up 80 percent of Iran’s state budget; were imports of Iranian oil banned, its economy would be brought to a standstill. Iran’s automobile industry is domestically produced, except for engines; cut sales of engines and its economy would be greatly weakened. . . .

Apart from such deprivations, there may be other developments that could influence the Iranian regime in the immediate years to come. These include Israeli-Syrian peace talks, an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, domestic unrest in Iran, a scientific breakthrough in renewable energy, a decision on the part of China or Russia to get serious about curbing Iran’s power, and the election of a new American president, to name a few. Each of these seems far more plausible and close at hand than the nightmare scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran inaugurating the mother of all suicide bombings.

Diplomacy brings the ability to respond to events as they unfold, and keeps the possibility of peace alive. By contrast, a preemptive military attack would send events spinning out of anyone’s control. At minimum, it would bring intense retaliatory attacks against Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah — and probably far worse.

It is time for Israel’s leaders to widen their search for allies, influence, and remedies to the contagious animosity that plagues the region. Too often, Israel has done little to cultivate its state-to-state relationships, except through arms sales. The opening of a conversation with Syria (with Turkey as the courier), and the welcome extended to France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy, are significant steps that should be built upon. Diplomacy is “the missing component in Israel’s foreign policy,” argues Eytan Gilboa of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (Israel Affairs, October, 2006). “[A] grand strategy in international conflict requires the integration and application of . . . force, diplomacy and communication. The last component, communication, may even be the decisive factor.”

In short, the model that Iran presents — armed, isolated, and indifferent to hostile world opinion — needs to be contained, not emulated, by Israel.


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